In an attempt to bring the performance of their IndyCar solution closer to the level of their competitors, Honda Performance Development (HPD) has brought a new front wing design to Belle Isle for the Verizon IndyCar Series double-header this weekend, the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit presented by Quicken Loans. The image shown above of the new wing fitted to Graham Rahal’s Honda-powered Dallara was posted on Reddit earlier today. The new design shows a substantial change in the geometry of the outer edges of the wing. Previously, a large end-plate supporting a series of cascade elements occupied the outer real estate of the front wing. Now the cascade elements are curved downward to be partially self-supporting, and an upper canard element as well as the outer profile of the vertical portions of the cascade elements seem to be attempts to divert the air flow away from the front wheels. This is a step away from the primarily downforce-focused initial design and towards a more drag-reducing design as the Chevrolet aero kits are.
Whenever teams and manufacturers are allowed freedom to setup and develop their racing machines differently, there exists the possibility of one team not arriving at as optimal of a solution as others. In Formula 1, we see this all the time, and it leads to one team or group of teams dominating the grid. We saw this with the diffuser solution deployed by BrawnGP in 2009, in the better aerodynamic solution of the Red Bull cars thanks to aero wizard Adrian Newey, and recently we’ve seen the Mercedes power units dominate the 2014 and 2015 seasons. This season, the Verizon IndyCar Series has permitted the long-anticipated manufacturer-developed aero kits for the Dallara DW12 core chassis. Now with different engines and different aerodynamic solutions, Chevrolet and Honda are duking it out not only on the racetrack, but also in the caffeine and doughnut infested confines of their engineering offices. One manufacturer has arrived at a better solution than the other.
Last year, we saw that the Honda motor was down on power relative to the Chevrolet. In fact, Honda-powered cars, in spite of outnumbering the Chevrolet full-time entries 12 to 10 in 2014, managed only six victories over the 18-round season. This season, with the manufacturers bringing their own aero development, the disparity between Honda and Chevrolet is even worse. In the first six races this year, Chevrolet has won five including the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. The one round in which Chevrolet was not in Victory Circle, they finished in second place. This means that the average top finish for Chevrolet is 1.2, while the average top finish for Honda is a meager 4.2. That number for Honda was helped recently by Graham Rahal who placed second at Barber Motorsports Park and at the Indy Grand Prix and was the highest-finishing Honda-powered driver in the 500 coming in fifth.
Some of the disparity between the two manufacturers comes from teams that have affiliated each. The two giants of Indy car racing, Team Penske and Chip Gannasi Racing, are both using Chevrolet power. Other notable Chevrolet-affiliated teams include CFH Racing and KV Racing Technologies. The strongest team on the Honda side is Andretti Autosport. To be sure, Andretti is a powerful team, after all Ryan Hunter-Reay was last year’s Indianapolis 500 winner. In regard to teams being a regular threat for the victory, Andretti Autosport is about it. There are other quality teams in the Honda camp such as Schmidt Peterson Motorsport and Rahal Lanigan Letterman Racing, but the remainder of Honda teams include mid-pack and also-ran outfits such as AJ Foyt Enterprises, Dale Coyne Racing, and Bryan Herta Autosport. We have certainly seen race winners from these teams, but they’re not where the smart money is on a weekly basis. Regardless of the distribution of teams and talent, however, HPD must do something to close the gap to Chevrolet.
The redesign of the front wing may be a good step forward and be of benefit to the Honda teams, and kudos to INDYCAR for permitting the in-season development in this first year of manufacturer-designed aero kits. Anytime one brings new aero bits to the party, though, there is risk. On a racing machine, especially where aerodynamics are concerned, everything depends upon everything else. By making a substantial change like this to the front of the car, the air flow over sidepods, through the underwing, into the air intake and radiators, and over the rear wing elements are also changed. These changes, which I am sure that HPD has modeled at least through computational fluid dynamics, may work out great, but they may also result in unexpected instabilities and balancing issues. With this weekend being a double-header, the risk Honda is taking is large, but then so is the potential payoff if they’re new kit provides improved performance. I suppose by Sunday evening, we’ll have an answer.